The Peripatetic Reviewer
THE GLORY AND THE DREAM: A Narrative History of America, 1932-1972 by Little, Brown, $20.00
This great thumper of a book begins in 1932 with President and Mrs. Hoover dining gloomily together in the White House. The Depression was deep, banks were closing, but Hoover still put on a black tie, and had a bugler sound their approach before the pair of them sat down to a seven-course meal. In Only Yesterday, Frederick Lewis Allen had set the pace for a book like this, but in his charming, judgmatic way he did not try to wrestle with such a long and contentious block of time. From Hoover to Nixon is forty years of the most stupendous change this country has known, and what must impress any reader as he submerges himself in this chronicle is the prodigious energy with which Mr. Manchester keeps the narrative moving; the infinite details, some familiar, some as surprising as Ripley’s “Believe It or Not,” which brighten the page; and last, and very important, the fairness of the reporting.
There will never be a better time than the present to read of the fearlessness and improvisation with which Franklin Delano Roosevelt revived the nation; it is healthy to recall the dedication of Harry Hopkins, the enterprise of the WPA, the concern and the incredible activity of Eleanor Roosevelt. “Her glow,” Adlai Stevenson said after her death, “warmed the world.” Hard times throw up good leaders, and demagogues. In New York, LaGuardia was the best mayor the city ever had, but in Detroit, the power of Father Coughlin grew to an inflammatory point before the millions who listened to him on the radio turned him off; and in Louisiana, Huey Long, with his Share-Our-Wealth program (I had forgotten what a giveaway it was), boasted that he would move into the White House, and the polls showed that if he were to run on a third-party ticket, he would take four million votes away from FDR.
There were four events, says Manchester, which we will remember as long as we live: Pearl Harbor, the death of President Roosevelt, the election of 1948, and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He re-creates these with telling detail and with sympathy, especially Harry Truman’s gritty fight for re-election. Manchester quotes from bits of the seventy-three speeches which Truman made on his “whistle-stop campaign,” and from the audience response, signals which were completely missed by Dewey’s advisers, the press, and the pollsters. “Everybody’s against me but the people.” said Truman on his return, and he was right.
The disasters are here: the hurricane of 1938 for which we had no warning; Senator Joseph McCarthy’s scarifying accusations of the State Department and of private citizens—opposed not by Secretary of State Dulles, but by Senators Fulbright and Flanders — a vile contamination which ran its course until Joseph Welch, the Boston lawyer, and common sense put a stop to it; the Bay of Pigs fiasco, imposed upon President Kennedy in his first week of office by a less than reliable CIA; and most tormenti ng of all, Vietnam. Reading of them with hindsight should teach us a lesson if we are willing to remember.
IN THEIR WISDOM by C. P. Snow Scribner’s, $7.95
C. P. Snow was elevated to the House of Lords in 1964, and that august body is the center of rumination in this leisurely novel. The subject under discussion in the Bishops’ Bar is the will of old man Massie, who, having outlived his contemporaries and estranged his only daughter, Jenny, left his considerable fortune not to the housekeeper who attended to his final, petulant demands, but to her son, Julian Underwood. In several preliminary wills, Massie had designated Jenny as his heir, but in the last she was cut off, and when she contests the settlement the narrative moves with nice touches of irony into the upper realm of British law.
Three members of the House of Lords are personally involved: the suave skeptic Lord Hillmorton, a former cabinet minister; the historian Lord Ryle, a widower who has taken an old man’s fancy to Hillmorton’s daughter Liz; and Lord Lorimer, the tongue-tied, impoverished veteran of the Desert War. In sharp contrast to the trio, whose competitive years are behind them, is the millionaire Reginald Swaffield who has bullied Jenny into bringing suit.
Two love affairs depend upon the outcome. The one between the spirited Jenny, an heiress if the will is disallowed, and her hesitant suitor, Lord Lorimer, whom she is ready to seduce, is beguiling and sympathetic. The other, the infatuation of Hillmorton’s daughter Liz for Julian Underwood, the heir apparent, is harder to accept, for Julian is an illdrawn charlatan.
The novel reflects the author’s concern for England’s decline. (“It might turn into a bigger, more ramshackle, more internally fissured Sweden.”) The thoughtful quality of the story is in the characterization of the older men as they cope with their misgivings: Hillmorton cynically observing the ineffectual efforts of the younger generation to govern; Ryle as he wonders if he can be adequate in a marriage with a younger woman; Adam Sedgwick, the Nobel Prize winner, the stoic, as he braces himself for the operation which may grant him a reprieve from Parkinson’s disease; and the honest Lorimer as he is coaxed out of his shell. The trial with its savor of scandal, the loquacity of the judge, and the fraternity of the rival barristers are admirably described.
JERICHO: THE SOUTH BEHELD by Hubert Shuptrine & James Dickey Oxmoor House, Inc., $39.95; $60.00 after January 1st
The text in this handsome album is by James Dickey. Shrewdly observant, story-telling, often poetic, it puts us in the mood for the drawings and paintings of the country roads, tobacco fields, seacoast, the forgotten pockets, and the rustic characters that attracted the artist, Hubert Shuptrine. “There was timeless beauty,” he writes, “in the plainest face or object! Also, for the first time, I tried working in transparent watercolor—and I’ve used it ever since.”
Shuptrine is at his best in his portraits, and as a clue to them, Dickey writes, “All over Jericho we like to hang around. When you hang around, in this land, you hear stories, and you make up your own. On country porches and in towm squares, on hunting trips—for we are great hunters, here—even in the suburbs, the tongue matters. We are the most outrageous and creative liars in the world, and we take our time to make the lies a lot more interesting than the truth.” Look at the portraits, “Turn Gibson.” “Old Hombre,” “Mountain Gentleman,” and you can believe they would have great tales to tell.
A comparison with Andrew Wyeth’s beautiful album, whose 121 color plates are so expressive of the Northeast, is inevitable. I wrish that the opening pages of Jericho were more inviting: there is no frontispiece, and the early black-andwhites are dull. Then I am struck by the stillness in Shuptrine’s work, a stillness partly explained in Dickey’s words: “The South has a long tradition of slow-moving, of standing and watching, of having the time—of giving ourselves the time—to sit on country porches . . . There is movement in the fisherman “Sculling Home” and in the horseman, “Blue Norther,” but in the main, Shuptrine’s people are as quiet as his appealing “Nettie” with her fishing pole.
This is not the South of magnolias and white porticoes, but of humble folk and of landscapes whose soft smoky coloring—of the fieldstone crib in “Shenandoah,” or of the loveliest of all the paintings, “Late Afternoon”—holds a suggestion of the influence of Rackham. Shuptrine’s paintings have sentiment, but I do not find the mystery that Wyeth conveys by the handling of light, or a breeze that stirs the curtain in an empty room; the southerner is content simply to show things as they are.
THE EBONY TOWER by John Fowles Little, Brown, $7.95
In The French Lieutenant’s Woman, John Fowles wrote most elegantly of the Victorians and of what a bewitching woman did to an otherwise conventional gentleman. “The Ebony Tower,” the best narrative in this book of five pieces, is all the more enticing because of the author’s love for France. It is the story of two artists: the younger, David Williams, also an able critic, has been commissioned by his publishers to write the biographical introduction to The Art of Henry Breasley, and has come to Brittany to beard the lion.
Breasley is an English expatriate who was apprenticed to Braque and Chagall, who first attracted notice with his savage drawings of the war in Spain, and whose paintings, after a scandalous career, are reaping a fortune. David knows of Breasley’s reputation, yet as he approaches the threshold, is surprised at the sight of two naked girls in their twenties lying side by side on the sunny lawn, one asleep, the other on her stomach reading a book. Such is his introduction to the old faun and his attendants.
The afternoon passes cordially as the two men sound one another out, and the Mouse, the more comely of the two girls, now in a diaphanous dress, proves to be a sensitive ally as she interprets Breasley’s cryptic, abrasive remarks. The old man is abusive in his references to the nymphs, and obscenely contemptuous of Abstract Art, to which he knows his guest is devoted. His canvases in the big living room—a Derain, an early Bonnard, an early Matisse, a Braque, but no Picasso— tell where his heart lies, and as wine loosens his tongue at supper, he bursts into a tirade. The picture of the four of them in the lamplight, the old satyr baiting them all until they have to help him to bed, is brilliantly done.
In the guest room, as David’s adrenalin subsides, he wonders about the Mouse, why she has thrown up her studies in London to nurse the old man, what their relations really are. At breakfast, in the mood of contrition, a picnic is planned; anger is replaced by confidences; on their walk in the forest, David is fascinated by what the Mouse tells him, and later, when they swim together while Breasley is napping, by the girl herself. Never was infatuation more swift—or difficult to control.
Of the other pieces, “The Enigma,” the story of a very proper English MP who vanishes without a ripple, is the cleverest. But it lacks the beauty and temptation of “The Ebony Tower.”
LITE & LETTERS CONTRIBUTORS
Benjamin DeMott is professor of English at Amherst College and author of Surviving the Seventies.
Kenneth Baker is a free-lance art critic.
James Alan McPherson is a contributing editor to this magazine.
Edward Weeks and Phoebe Adams appear regularly in these pages.
POETS IN THIS ISSUE
Bella Akhmadulina (page 81) is among the most celebrated of the younger generation of Russian poets.
Barry Spacks (page 104) is the author of two novels and two books of verse.